U.S. Government Can No Longer Be Trusted To Protect The Internet From International Power Grabs

Editor’s note: Jeff Jarvis is the author of “What Would Google Do?,” “Public Parts,” and the Kindle Single “Gutenberg the Geek” and is cohost of This Week in Google. He directs the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at the City University of New York. Follow him on Twitter @jeffjarvis.

In the wake of Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing, the United States government can no longer be seen as a beneficent or even merely benign actor on the Internet. That could have disastrous consequences, first in reducing trust in the cloud and its American hosts and second in potentially upending Internet governance.

Many governments have been chomping at the bit to gain greater control of the net:

  • Two years ago at the eG8 meeting in Paris, I faced then-President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and urged him to take a Hippocratic oath for the net: First, do no harm. He mocked the question and visibly warmed to the idea of the net as an eighth continent onto which he could plant his flag.
  • After reports of U.S. surveillance of Brazilian companies and citizens, their government has asked the United Nations to step in to protect privacy on the net.
  • And at last year’s Internet Governance Forum and International Telecommunications Union meetings, such stalwarts of free speech as Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, and Sudan tried to claim “equal rights to manage the internet.” They were blocked when the U.S. gathered other Western nations to walk out of treaty negotiations.

But now that Snowden and the Guardian have revealed the U.S. to be the Big Ear listening to more and more raw communication — to “collect it all,” in the words of NSA Director Gen. Keith Alexander — can America still be seen as both the mother and the protector of the Internet?

The revelations are “likely to be severely setting back the cause of Internet freedom in the international community,” wrote Zachary Keck in The Diplomat. “States and inter-governmental organizations are likely to gain even more control over what has long been thought of as a stateless entity.”

The net’s own sovereignty depends on no one having sovereignty over it.

In stronger words yet, John Naughton, a tech columnist for the Observer in London, warned that Snowden’s leaks demonstrate “that the US is an unsavoury regime too. And that it isn’t a power that can be trusted not to abuse its privileged position. They also undermine heady U.S. rhetoric about the importance of a free and open Internet. Nobody will ever again take seriously US Presidential or State Department posturing on Internet freedom. So, in the end, the NSA has made it more difficult to resist the clamour for different – and possibly even more sinister – arrangements for governing the Net.”

But the net’s own sovereignty depends on no one having sovereignty over it. I wrote that a few years ago when I came to the conclusion that no company and no government can protect the freedom of the net. So who will? We, the citizens of the net — and many of you, its builders — must engage in a discussion of the principles of a free net and open society that we wish to protect.

Those principles include the ideas that we have a right to privacy no matter the medium and a right to speak, assemble and act. We have a right to connect, and if that connection is cut or compromised, that must be seen as a violation of our human rights. All bits are created equal and if any bit is stopped or detoured — or spied upon — on its way to its destination, then no bit can be presumed to be free and secure. And the net must remain open and distributed under the thumb of no authority.

Let’s be clear that the net is enabling disruptive forces to organize and act against governments from Tunisia and Egypt to Turkey and Brazil — not to mention the United States. It is in the interests of
these institutions to control the net and its redistribution of power.

Our net is in danger — not because of Edward Snowden, but because of what we now know about the actions of the U.S. government. The threat is bigger than SOPA or PIPA or ACTA. It is a threat to the nature of the net.

[Image: CUNY]